April 13, 2004

A Field Guide to Prescriptivists

Like everyone interested in language, we here at Language Log spend a lot of time countering bad advice about usage -- for example here, here , here, and here, to pick at random from the past few weeks. Not all language advice is bad -- the many usage notes in the American Heritage Dictionary are generally excellent, for instance -- but many prescriptive strictures about language are "logically incoherent, factually wrong and promptly disobeyed by the prescriber", as I put it recently.

Bad linguistic advice is not only common, it's also confusingly diverse. Over the past few weeks, I've been picking away at an analysis of this diversity, under the working title "A Taxonomy of Prescriptivists". But aside from sounding like one of those tiresome made-up collective nouns, this title presumes that prescriptivists can be divided and subdivided according to their several kinds, like species of higher animals. I've recently been reading a wonderful book -- A Field Guide to Bacteria, by Betsy Dexter Dyer -- which has reminded me that classificatory features --even genetic ones -- need not be distributed in a tree-structured way.

Bacteria are hard to classify on the basis of how they look: "most bacteria are tiny rods... many of the rest are tiny spheres." As a result, "metabolism... has traditionally been the primary characteristic for distinguishing them." More recently, DNA comparisons have revolutionized ideas about bacterial classification. However, there's a problem:

"Bacteria are extraordinarily promiscuous with their DNA. By a process called 'horizontal transfer', DNA sequences can be exchanged among different species and even among different kingdoms. Horizontal transfer of DNA is not only possible, but it is apparently carried out readily... bacteria can acquire DNA sequences not only from each other but from humans, for example... Some microbiologists (such as Sorin Sonea and Maurice Panisset) have suggested that there are really no bacterial species at all but rather a sort of continuum of flowing genes over a huge amount of space and time. At any given point we have a snapshot that gives us the illusion of taxonomic groups because exchanges occur most easily between similar bacteria and less easily between more distantly related groups." (Dyer, p. 10)

Like bacteria transferring genes, prescriptivists -- whether sensible or idiotic -- mix and match ideas about usage. The resulting distribution is far from random: different prescriptive memes are more or less compatible with one another, and with other aspects of critical morphology, ideological metabolism and intellectual history. However, the result is not a nice Linnaean taxonomic tree either.

I don't think anyone can yet plausibly claim to have found memetic DNA, if such a thing is even possible. However, we can identify some key elements of prescriptivist metabolism, in terms of five different motivations that may be given for strictures about usage:

1. Tradition -- how our forebears talked. Innovation is degeneration.

2. Fashion-- how an admired group talks. Deviation is alienation.

3. Rationality -- how one ought ideally to talk. Inconsistency is illogical.

4. Standards -- how we should agree to talk. Variation confuses communication.

5. Revelation -- how God taught us to talk. Alteration is transgression.

Particular cases are usually a mixture of these. Such metabolic processes may cooperate or conflict depending on details -- thus an appeal to fashion may point in the same direction as an appeal to tradition, or in the opposite direction, depending on whether the prescriptivist admires the old ways or prefers the latest thing.

Not all classificatory features of the ideological metabolism of prescriptivism deal with justification. Some have to do with ideas about the nature of human nature and human history, which usually come in superficially inconsistent pairs:

1. Linguistic original sin: Natural behavior is irretrievably incoherent and lawless. Only by careful adherence to explicit rules, explicitly learned, can well-ordered speech and writing be approached.

2. The noble linguistic savage: Unmonitored vernacular speech is ipso facto correct and appropriate. Formal language is artificial, inconsistent and rife with hypercorrections.

3. The Four Ages (Gold, Silver, Brass, Iron/Clay). There are historical peaks and valleys in the quality of culture, including language. People who express this meme usually think that the recent historical direction has been downwards, so that their own time is a valley.

4. The march of progess. Like everything else, language and its use in communication get better over time, due to cultural innovation, competition and technology.

This post is already long enough, and I have a class to prepare. Later on I'll try to apply these classificatory features to particular (old and new) examples of prescriptive practice, identifying aspects of appearance, habitat and smell that can be used for field identification. A interesting survey of prescriptivist history (in the case of English) can be found in the front matter ( pp. 7a-11a) from Webster's Dictionary Of English Usage (1989) by E. Ward Gilman, available on line here.

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 13, 2004 07:47 AM